By Cardinal Justin Rigali
One of the themes of Pope Benedict XVI’s pontificate is the building of a “hermeneutic” of continuity or principle of continuity. This concept reminds us that the teaching of the Church represents a continuity, based on the Gospel and the Church’s constant teaching. There is no rupture in the Church’s teaching nor does it represent the arbitrary opinions of a particular Pope. The Church, indeed, presents her teaching according to the needs of each age so that the truth of Christ may shine forth in every age, but there is always a continuity. Pope Benedict XVI’s Message for the World Day of Peace, January 1, 2009, reflects this continuity.
The “preferential love for the poor,” to use an expression of Pope John Paul II, is a constant presence in the Christian tradition, beginning with the early Church (cf. Acts 4:32-36; 1 Corinthians 16:1; 2 Corinthians 8-9; Galatians 2:10). In the modern age, this concern for the poor has been shown through what is called the “social teaching” of the Church. Beginning with the encyclical letter of Pope Leo XIII, Rerum Novarum, which showed forth such a concern for the plight of the worker in a newly industrialized age that it has been called a “Magna Carta” for the working person, down through the encyclicals of Pope Pius XI, Pius XII, John XXIII, Paul VI and John Paul II, the Church has shown herself to be a loving mother, always concerned with the welfare of her members. The latest example of this concern is the Message of our Holy Father for the World Day of Peace, which has as its theme and title: “Fighting Poverty to Build Peace.”
The Pope reminds us that this is yet another issue which concerns the dignity of the human person. He quotes Pope John Paul II, who spoke of this problem as one “which the conscience of humanity cannot ignore, since the conditions in which a great number of people are living are an insult to their innate dignity and as a result are a threat to the authentic and harmonious progress of the world community” (Message for the 1993 World Day pf Peace). At the outset, we are presented with a definition of poverty, which does not limit itself to a material lack of goods. In placing the definition of poverty in its proper perspective, Pope Benedict defines poverty as being not only material but also moral and spiritual. He points out that this moral and spiritual poverty is often found in those “whose interior lives are disoriented and who experience various forms of malaise despite their economic prosperity” (Message, 2).
Poverty and its moral implications
In addressing the demographic changes that are sometimes cited as bringing about some forms of poverty, the Holy Father warns that increased population should be treated as an asset, rather than a factor that contributes to poverty. In warning against measures which seek to reduce a country’s population in the misguided interest of bettering its economic situation, Pope Benedict points out that whole populations have risen above the absolute poverty level in the past 25 years, while their numbers have grown. The Pope also points out that, among the most developed countries, those with the higher birth rates enjoy better opportunities for development.
In the area of pandemic diseases, the Pope laments the fact that aid to poor countries is often linked to imposed measures of artificial birth control, causing those countries “to find themselves held hostage, when they try to address them, by those who make economic aid conditional upon the implementation of anti-life policies” (Message, 4). In considering child poverty, the Pope points out that almost half of those living in poverty throughout the world are children. While emphasizing the need to care for mothers, make education available and give access to vaccines and safe drinking water, the Pope reminds the world that what is most beneficial to children in the long term is the defense of the family. There is no substitute for the stability of family life in bringing security and love to children. This will always be so because it is according to God’s plan.
The Message goes on to address the disproportionate amounts that are spent for arms in comparison to what is used for the alleviation of poverty throughout the world. Pope Benedict quotes the Charter of the United Nations on this topic, in which that international body commits itself “to promote the establishment and maintenance of international peace and security with the least spanersion for armaments of the world’s human and economic resources” (art. 26). The last area addressed under poverty and its moral implications concerns the current food crisis which, the Pope points out, is not so much a crisis involving a lack of food but its equitable distribution. Under this topic the increasing disparity throughout the world between rich and poor is also addressed. Much of this is due to advances in technology which, of their nature, generally benefit the more advanced countries and further marginalize the underdeveloped nations.
The present worldwide financial crisis
Since the concern of the Pope is always for the welfare of all people, he does not ignore the present financial situation which the world finds itself in. Indeed, those in our own Archdiocese find themselves affected by this crisis in many ways. The Pope’s analysis is worth quoting here in full. He says: “Objectively, the most important function of finance is to sustain the possibility of long – term investment and hence of development. Today this appears extremely fragile. The recent crisis demonstrates how financial activity can at times be completely turned in on itself, lacking any long-term consideration of the common good. This lowering of the objectives of global finance to the very short term reduces its capacity to function as a bridge between the present and the future, and as a stimulus to the creation of new opportunities for production and for work in the long term. Finance limited in this way to the short and very short term becomes dangerous for everyone, even for those who benefit when the markets perform well” (Message, 10).
Challenges at the level of our local Church
At this point in our reflection, it would be good for me to address the issues the Pope speaks of on a global scale at the level of our own local Church of Philadelphia. I unite myself with those in our community who are experiencing financial and employment challenges in these difficult economic times. Financial instability and the inability to provide for one’s own needs and those of a family often create tensions within a home which go beyond what is merely financial or material. I am aware that the loss of a job, the threat of downsizing, the inability to make mortgage or tuition payments and the feeling of helplessness that often goes with these factors are realities that a number of our people are facing.
The agencies and parishes of the Archdiocese do their best to administer the charity of our people to those who are in most need of it, especially in these challenging times. The description of our Archdiocesan Social Services’ mission tells us in part some of what they accomplish on a daily basis throughout the Archdiocese: “The services and programs (of Catholic Social Services), funded in part by the Catholic Charities Appeal, provide a social safety net for men, women and children across the Archdiocese. Clients of Catholic Social Services are from all socio-economic backgrounds who seek help for a variety of personal and social issues.”
These programs include: residential and foster care programs serving at risk youth, the mentally retarded and the homeless; family service centers providing material and financial assistance, counseling, pregnancy and adoption services, day care, after school and summer camp; senior centers and parish senior clubs offering spiritual, recreational, lunch and social programs; nutritional development services providing over ten million meals annually to poor children and families throughout the Archdiocese. When we add the institutions of charity throughout the Archdiocese which care for those in need, we have some small idea of the tremendous program of charity that is administered in this great Archdiocese of Philadelphia. While these programs, agencies and institutions are with us all the time, they experience even greater challenges to their resources in these difficult times.
As our Holy Father encourages us to fight poverty in order to build peace, he makes us more aware of global challenges, which always leads us to a greater awareness of our own local needs and what we can do to respond to them. May we all do our part so that we can also receive the blessing which Jesus promises to the peacemakers.
1 January 2009